By Emily Williams
Adolescent suicide rates are on the rise, according to an October report released by the Centers for Disease Control, ranking as the second-leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24 in 2017.
The number of suicide deaths for this age group began to climb in 2007, surpassing homicide rates between 2010 and 2011 and increasing 56% by 2017.
“If the second-leading cause of death for that age group were a flu or disease, we would have all kinds of commercials about it, all kinds of meetings about it, all kinds of phone calls about it,” said Cindy Wiley, Ed.S., who operates a private practice in Mountain Brook.
Wiley has more than 30 years of experience working with teenagers as a teacher, school counselor and former supervisor of counseling for Shelby County Schools. In addition, she is a founding member of the Alabama Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
When she isn’t focused on her clients, Wiley finds time to speak to various student, parent and school communities about risk assessment development and suicide prevention.
“(Suicide is) so preventable, but kids just don’t get the kind of information that they need to deal with everything going on at this point in their lives,” she said.
Wiley will be sharing her latest discussion topic, “What’s My Value? The Highs and Lows of Teenage Life,” at the All In Mountain Brook High School Parenting Conference on Nov. 4.
Her discussion focuses on the ways in which teenagers find their value in today’s society.
“You want to have a working knowledge of what’s going on around your child,” Wiley said.
She provides tools and information that parents can use to relate a bit better to their children.
From her perspective, Wiley has seen more anxiety than ever before among her adolescent clients.
“Overthinking causes a lot of issues for teens,” she said. “And they come by it so organically because of where they are developmentally.”
While most adults know how intense adolescence is, with physical and mental developments in overdrive, external social pressures have changed in recent years.
“We have zero idea what it is like to be a teenager in 2019,” Wiley said.
“When we were growing up, you could just go home. There was a phone, but it was on the wall. There wasn’t all of this Snapchat and TikTok, and the fear of being recorded.”
Social media is a constant influence now, available at all times with the click of an app icon on your cell phone. There is an ever-present pressure knowing that a single mistake or moment of failure could be captured and posted online, where it might follow you forever.
There’s also the constant pressure for exterior perfection. People present their “best self” online, shaped and defined by what other people deem valuable through likes, views and comments.
A teenager’s inner dialogue can become wrapped up in what they see externally, Wiley said. A personally happy experience or favorite photo posted online can become negative with one harsh comment or too few likes.
When a teenager bases his or her own values on what other people like, they begin to lose sight of who they truly are and what makes them happy.
“It is 100% OK to be who you are,” Wiley said. “We all have different talents in life and ideas. It would be really boring if we were all the same. So, we have to teach our kids that it’s OK to be you, but we also have to teach our kids to let people be themselves.”
It can be easy to get caught up in what other people think and hide certain feelings that may not seem pretty – worry, sadness and doubt, for instance. For a teenager, hiding aspects of yourself can become increasingly isolating.
“And the things that make us unhappy are things that don’t really matter, if we think about it,” Wiley said. “How many friends you have on Snapchat. Is that how you base yourself? If I asked (a client) that, they would say no at first, but when we get down to it, that’s it. The perception.”
By making an effort to understand a child’s perspective, a parent can become a more effective listener. In turn, they may be able to help their child find a healthier set of values or identify whether help from a professional is needed before deeper mental issues develop.
“It’s funny, what I see in the office is that adolescents are much more at ease with it than their parents are,” Wiley said. “Some of the parents are a little more reticent, because they don’t want something to be wrong with their child.”
Wiley noted that she makes a point to let her clients know that they don’t have a problem, they just need an objective listener. Whether in school or private practice, a counselor offers a safe space to talk and tools to care for oneself.
“They then have those tools for life,” Wiley said. “So when life gets hard in their 20s and 30s, they have tools available to them because they’ve used them before. That is the goal of counseling, so you can self- care, self-soothe and self-regulate,” she said. “Those are the things that we really want them to learn permanently.”